Sunday, September 4, 2011

On Manmohon Singh's Coming to Town

As I See It Column
The Independent
September 3, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The period of waiting for what India would provide us on our bilateral interests is about to end. The Indian Prime Minister would be coming to Dhaka on a return visit from 6-8 September. The expectations have been enhanced by the strong entourage of the Prime Minister that would include a number of Ministers and 5 Chief Ministers, including the mercurial Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banarjee.

Those of us who have been involved in the past in negotiating with the Indians knew that the issues holding forward movement of relations were a denial by India in giving us a fair share of the waters of the cross border rivers, a favourable trade regime, a resolution of the land and maritime boundary demarcation and killing in innocent Bangladeshis in the border by the BSF.

India wanted from us land transit to connect its mainland to its northeastern provinces for their economic development. In addition, India also wanted an assurance from Bangladesh that our territory would not be used by insurgents of India. Bangladesh never acknowledged the latter and was not inclined to discuss the former without linking it to our demands on water, trade, maritime and land boundaries.

The present government decided unilaterally to give India fullest cooperation on its security concerns. As guarantee, it handed over 7 top ULFA terrorists who were hiding in Bangladesh to Indian security before Sheikh Hasina went for her Indian visit. In return, the Indians raised the status of her visit from official to state, a privilege reserved under established protocol for a Head of State.

Sheikh Hasina’s visit was full of promises. In a 56 paragraph Joint Communiqué, all issues of interest to the two countries were brought into the equation. However, reading between the lines, there were no concessions from India on Bangladesh’s key demands except promises. India was nevertheless granted a number of clear concessions, like the land transit, expansion of the existing river transit with inclusion of new ports of call and the use of Chittagong and Mangla Ports and of course commitment on Indian.

Nevertheless, our negotiators were extremely confident that India would give us more than our expectations. They just asked us to wait till Manmohon Singh visited Bangladesh. In their enthusiasm, the Bangladesh side overlooked India’s role in the sad state of bilateral relations and even went to the extent accusing previous Bangladesh governments of not giving India land transit decades ago.

Our negotiators said that India would make us the connectivity hub of the region that would just not bring Indian northeastern provinces into the loop but also Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China. The promises of money coming from transit fees and investment and commerce were just too rosy for anyone not to feel exited. Just when we were ready to count the chickens with the Indian Prime Minister’s visit days away, an Adviser of the Prime Minister who it now seems is a key individual involved in the negotiations, is addressing seminars and giving TV interviews advising us to go slow on our expectations and not yet to start counting our chickens.

In an address to the diplomatic correspondents union, the Adviser Dr. Gowher Rizvi said that we would not need to sign any new agreement with India to provide it land transit for it was already given to the Indians by an agreement signed in 1974. The statement that India was granted land transit by an earlier agreement is correct. Dr. Rizvi was however incorrect about the year and agreement. It was granted in 1979 when President Ziaur Rahman was in office.

The statement of the Adviser raises questions. First, why did he not tell us about this earlier? Second, why did the Joint Communiqué not mention this agreement? Third, why did he err on the year? For refreshing his memory, this fact is known to many in his own party (and the Foreign Ministry) that was very critical of the BNP when it was in power for opposing land transit when it had in 1979 granted it to India.

The Adviser is also now cautioning us not to expect dividends from land transit straightaway. He said our roads won’t be ready in the next few years to handle Indian traffic. He instead asked us to look at rail and water transits although he did not tell us how much money this would bring us in transit fees and that river transit was there since 1979 anyway. One suspects that the Adviser was forced to this admission only after the Finance Minister embarrassed the government by admitting in the media that the roads would not be ready in years for Indian traffic.

Also, for sake of transparency, we would like Dr. Rizvi to tell us why subsequent governments after 1979 did not implement the land transit agreement. Was the Farakkha in any way responsible for change of heart in Bangladesh? Or for that matter the series of broken Indian promises, like its failure to implement the 1974 Mujib-Indira Agreement or its unfriendly and over-bearing attitude?

In a dialogue with Indians that I attended recently with colleagues, we were warned by the Indians that we should not expect too much from connectivity with northeastern states as they are not a composite whole, very poor and have many problems among themselves to allow us great economic benefits in the short run. Dr. Rizvi is now alluding to these Indian fears about expecting too much from connectivity. As for China coming into the loop, it was never even consulted while building our expectations. Now with the emerging international situation in the region, it is a non-starter to expect that India would allow modern roads to be built from China right up to the doors of its fragile northeast.

In the current debate over land transit raised by the Bangladesh negotiators, we seem to have forgotten that we need from India for our survival as a nation, the rights of the waters of the common rivers, a more balanced trade, a clear statement on Tippaihmukh, and a settlement of the maritime boundary based on the principles of international law. Why is the Adviser not telling us of these issues instead of harping on promises of enormous benefits from connectivity that by his own admission would be in cold storage for a few more years? Courtesy BBC Bangla Service though we have now been informed that India would make major concessions on trade. Also, in knowledgeable circles in Dhaka, there are expectations of big Indian investments in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, almost inconspicuously, India now appears to have a handle on its security interests in Bangladesh because we have opened our doors for them to do so. Our Prime Minister’s commitment not to allow our soil to be used for terrorist attacks against India is indeed a very courageous decision. However, on security cooperation, a great deal is intransparent. Handing the ULFA terrorists to Indian security secretly has raised suspicion in the public mind about our government’s intentions. The people would like more transparency on Bangladesh-India security agreements and deals because if it is true that India today has a handle on its security needs in Bangladesh, then we may have bargained a great favour to India for very little in return.

Our Advisers assured us that they are quite competent to negotiate with India and win our interests as they have Harvard University background. The logic is hard to follow because that would render the Indians incompetent as to my knowledge; none on their side is from Harvard! Indian news media also seems to have a somewhat perception because it has urged the Indian Government not to disappoint Bangladesh and to reciprocate on the hard core issues of water, trade and land/maritime boundaries demarcation for concessions already made by Bangladesh.

Nevertheless, as a believer in institutions, I wonder about the Foreign Ministry that is conspicuous by its absence in the media in the context of the visit. If the Foreign Ministry is out of the loop many could rightly question whether the Advisers are the right individuals to carry forward negotiations and relations that would have a long term impact on the future of Bangladesh.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

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